In America, we’re pretty quick to ask fellow humans how they’re doing, what their day was like, or throw them an ever-so-casual “What’s up?” But why are we so guarded or squeamish when it comes to discussing death and dying? Despite a general discomfort in talking about death, there’s a small group of individuals in Corvallis who discuss the topic regularly.
Death Café Corvallis gathers on Wednesdays, either at noon or in the evening at 6 p.m., to talk about all things death-related. The group’s guiding principles are respect, openness, and confidentiality, and while participants are invited to talk death, the group isn’t a support group, debate society, sales pitch, religious or anti-religious organization, nor does it have a therapeutic agenda. Rather, curious individuals are invited to “drink coffee, eat cake, and discuss death with interesting people.”
The local Death Café group was started by Jon Louis Dorbolo, associate director of Technology Across the Curriculum (TAC) and philosophy instructor at Oregon State University. Dorbolo has taught philosophy at OSU for over 20 years, where he encourages his students to take concepts that are covered in the course and apply them to real life. He often participates in these exercises with his students, which prompted him to start the local Death Café gatherings. Dorbolo pointed out, however, that Death Café Corvallis isn’t supported by or affiliated with OSU.
“I try every term to do these real-world activities myself so that I may share my experiences as a co-learner with the class. As much as I love the abstractness of philosophy, I constantly seek ways to actualize it in the concrete world,” Dorbolo explained.
The first Death Café Corvallis meeting was held in the fall of 2014. The group has been meeting regularly since March 2015 at local coffee shops like The Beanery and Interzone on Monroe.
Dorbolo’s former student Adrian Clement co-founded the local Death Café. Clement was studying the philosophy of biology, and he and Dorbolo engaged in several conversations about the concepts of life and death.
“For the first few months it was just Adrian and I meeting weekly for conversation and to plan the Corvallis Death Café. Word of mouth promoted other folks to attend our weekly meetings,” Dorbolo said.
Dorbolo first discovered what Death Cafés were a few years back, while working on a master’s degree in psychology.
“In 2013, I wrote a paper relating the process of grieving to concepts in the Tibetan book Bardo Thodol, popularly known as The Tibetan Book of the Dead. Researching the concept of ‘grief’ led me to the work of Swiss sociologist Bernard Cretaz, whom I found had established the first café mortel in Neuchâtel, Switzerland in 2004,” said Dorbolo.
Similar sessions spread across Europe and a Death Café organization started in London in 2010, according to Dorbolo. The first Death Café group he became aware of in America was in Columbus, Ohio, in 2013.
“When I read about the Death Café movement I recognized the potential for actualizing my thinking about the concept of death,” Dorbolo said.
Dorbolo says the social “hardness” of talking about death is one point that most participants express at the meetings.
“Some [participants] say that they have never had sustained conversations about death, or that in their families and friendships, the topic is out of bounds, even when someone close to them dies,” said Dorbolo. “It is this ‘taboo’ character of the topic that prompted Cretaz to start his café mortel.”
Dorbolo also takes a different view on the matter of death and believes people communicate about death a lot in American culture. “But that communication comes to us through specific media in conventional forms,” he said.
A large percentage of movies and television shows include death as a subject, for example.
“Death is not taboo in that it is absent from our discourse. What is missing is dialogue on the topic of death. That is what Death Café Corvallis provides—a venue to enable you to voice your own thoughts and listen to others about ideas and issues related to death,” said Dorbolo.
One common change the local professor has observed in participants is the enlargement of the scope of their concept of death—several participants have said death is a far larger topic than they realized.
Dorbolo welcomes anyone to attend Corvallis Death Café. His role as a facilitator at the meetings is to ensure a safe and smart space for dialogue about death to occur. Gatherings are non-programmed, meaning that there are no set topics or prescribed procedures.
If you’re interested in the Corvallis Death Café, you can find out more by joining the Facebook group at www.facebook.com/groups/
By Abbie Tumbleson